Bacterial Meningitis: Prevention is key

Published on May 15, 2019
Authored by Pfizer Medical Team

Even though it is rare, bacterial meningitis often makes the news and our social media feeds. But what exactly is it? How likely are you, your children, or family to catch it? How do you know if you have it? And, last but not least, are there ways to prevent it? This article helps to provide the facts about bacterial meningitis.

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is an uncommon but very serious and potentially life-threatening infection. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain and spinal cord, where it can invade the membranes that surround them. These membranes are called meninges. It is not the same thing as viral meningitis, which is more common and usually less serious.

Bacterial meningitis can be caused by several different types of bacteria, including Haemophilus Influenzae Type B, pneumococcus and meningococcus. Thankfully, routine childhood vaccination has pretty much gotten rid of meningitis caused by Haemophilus Influenza Type B. It has also greatly reduced meningitis caused by pneumococcus and meningococcus. It can lead to permanent disabilities or death and requires immediate medical attention.

Although there are people at higher risk, bacterial meningitis can affect anyone—and it can be highly unpredictable. There are vaccines to help prevent some common causes of bacterial meningitis.

How can you get bacterial meningitis?

The types of bacteria that cause this condition are very common in the environment. In fact, they can live in or on your body without making you sick. People who carry the bacteria without getting sick are called “healthy carriers”. Carriers can still spread the bacteria to other people.

People who are at increased risk include:

  • babies and young children.
  • teenagers.
  • people over 65 years old.
  • People with a weakened immune system.
  • People living in a communal setting – such as in colleges and boarding schools.
  • People who travel to certain parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa.
  • People who have not completed the routine vaccination schedule.

The reason that the bacteria may cause meningitis in some people is often unknown, though a head injury or a weakened immune system may play a role.

How can it be spread?

There are a number of ways the bacteria can be spread from one person to another, and it often depends on the type of bacteria. These include:

  • During labor and birth, when a mother can spread the bacteria to her baby through the birth canal.
  • Coughing and sneezing when a person is in close physical contact with others.
  • Through contaminated food.

What are the signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis can progress rapidly, and early symptoms are difficult to distinguish from other more common infections—with flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea, a stiff neck, and vomiting. These symptoms may start after a person has a respiratory illness or sore throat. The disease can become serious within 24 hours.

Other symptoms among older children and adults can include chills, weakness, sweating, loss of appetite, and sensitivity to bright light. As the disease progresses, a person can become confused, drowsy and even lose consciousness.

Symptoms in babies and children up to 2 years of age include fever, bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on top of the baby’s head), not eating, high-pitched crying, irritability, arching of the back, and convulsions.

Meningitis Centre Australia have a symptom checklist that is free for you to download and print: 

If you think you or someone you know has the signs or symptoms of bacterial meningitis, it’s important to:

  • contact your doctor immediately, or
  • call triple zero (000) in Australia or triple one (111) in New Zealand for an ambulance, or
  • go to the nearest hospital emergency department right away.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Because the disease advances very quickly, it’s important to get treatment for bacterial meningitis as soon as possible.  Bacterial meningitis is treated with antibiotics. In some patients, additional treatment such as steroids may be given to reduce the inflammation in the brain. People with bacterial meningitis who have loss of appetite, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhoea may also be given additional fluids to replace the fluids that have been lost.

Can people be treated successfully for bacterial meningitis?

Most people who receive proper treatment recover. However, some people may develop seizures, or permanent disabilities such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, or brain damage.

Can bacterial meningitis be prevented?

The good news is: there are vaccines that can help protect you against some types of bacteria that can cause meningitis. These include pneumococcal, meningococcal and Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccines. In fact, these vaccines have greatly reduced the number of people getting bacterial meningitis in the developed world.

In Australia and New Zealand, people who are at higher risk—such as children, adolescents, older adults and people weakened immune systems— can receive some of these vaccines for free. Not all recommended vaccines are covered by the government.

Given that early symptoms are so similar to the flu, how rapidly it can progress, and the potentially huge consequences of bacterial meningitis— it’s really important to speak to your doctor for more information on your vaccination options.

In addition to getting vaccinated, healthy habits can also help with prevention. Here are some things you and your children can do:

  • Wash hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  • Don’t share food, drinks, or eating utensils with other people.  
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.

Read next: Find out if you are at a higher risk of a vaccine-preventable disease.

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  • 4. Meningitis and Encephalitis Fact Sheet.|National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Accessed December 17, 2018.
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  • 10. New Zealand Immunisation Schedule. Ministry of Health. Accessed February 15, 2019
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